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Social Media and the Presidential Debates

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The October debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and the one with Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, promise to be among the most watched in history. They generated a major discussion in late summer over the selection of the moderators. But an equally important discussion about technology has generated a very compelling question: how social will these debates be?

Great question.

Cable news has done a great job integrating social media in its debates. How much of those formats will be emulated by presidential moderators? Will YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn be used? And if so, how?

Take the powerhouse Pinterest for example. Overwhelmingly female and visually stunning, it is used by 19 percent of American women. This makes it a great way to measure sentiment about issues of importance to women like pay equity and education. Many teens and Millennials are bypassing regular television and receiving the majority of their news and entertainment directly from YouTube. This was the main demographic that passed along the Kony 2012 video, which went viral to over 100 million people in six days. Why not take advantage of this?

But don't simply use social networks to take the temperature of particular topics, so to speak. Integrate them fully in the debate platform. Social media will be to this election what television was to the 1960 victory of John Kennedy, and what radio was to the multiple victories in the '30s and '40s of Franklin Roosevelt.

According to the Pew Research Center, 2012 marks the first time that more than half of all Americans 65 and older are online. A stunning statistic. But the Millennial generation, which voted in unusually high numbers in 2008, is also actively concerned about world events and they're receiving and spreading newsworthy information almost exclusively online. The attention from the younger demographic participating in a more social version of television could be refocused on election commentary, and it could potentially change the conversation in a major way.

So what does this mean?

At some point we could see a major shift in perception regarding the upcoming election that may be determined differently in a social media world and a global up-to-the-minute environment. We can stray from single-source TV pundits when we have massive amounts of real-time information unfolding and the ability to interact with that information and the people we see on TV, like newscasters, politicians, and reliable sources in the blogsophere.

Every decade has their social entertainment and the medium of the time always tweaks the experience a bit, bringing us closer with the ability to reach farther. But the one thing that never changes is the social aspect of all media. Now that technology is advancing at an exhilarating pace, we can log in to our entertainment, gather around the interface as a global family, and interact with the news as it is happening.

Perhaps for the first time in election history, the old media story may be forked into multiple, nuanced social stories determined by many people who are type-watching television, and not by a few powerful TV talking heads. Social media already has a place in election analysis. Here's hoping it also has a permanent seat at the presidential debate stage.

2morrowKnight is a social media producer and consultant living in Washington, D.C., and co-creator of the Twitter Powerhouses Series.

Stephanie Spiro is a writer and cultural critic living in New York City. Her perspectives can be seen on The Viral Media Lab. Follow her on Twitter.

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